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HP CEO Meg Whitman Visits China
Meg Whitman, CEO of HP Enterprise Photograph by ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Why Female CEOs’ Giant Paychecks Aren’t Closing the Gender Pay Gap

Jun 01, 2017

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published a story touting the news that,"Female CEOs earn more than male chiefs." According to the article, the female chief executives at S&P 500 companies out-earned their male counterparts last year, with a median compensation package of $13.8 million. Male chiefs had a median package of $11.6 million.

Similar articles appear every year (indeed, we at Fortune published one just last month) and while technically accurate, they strike me as missing the point. First of all, this isn't exactly big news: As WSJ's Joann Lublin notes in her piece, women in top CEO roles have out-earned their male counterparts for six of the last seven years. But more importantly, such stories suggest that America's biggest corner offices are a haven for gender equity—which does not appear to be the case.

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The WSJ piece, like similar stories on executive comp, focuses on pay data for a small and elite group of chiefs. In this case, it's the leaders of S&P 500 companies—just 21 of whom are female. Given that sample size, it's difficult to draw any real conclusions by comparing median male comp to median female comp. (If you do want to compare salaries by gender, Fast Company's Kathleen Davis points out that the top-earning male CEO still out-earns the highest-paid woman—by about $63 million.) And those few women who do make it to the top? “They must be exceptional,” Heidi Hartman, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, tells Lublin.

I also suspect that focusing on the comp of a group of 21 extremely well-paid CEOs distracts some readers from the larger point: The vast majority of women in the U.S. still face a gender pay gap. According to the most recent data from the Pew Research Center, women earned 83% of what men earned in 2015. Based on today's gap, the National Women's Law Center reports that the average women would lose $418,800 over the course of a 40-year career.

Clearly, for those who will never reach the rarified stratum where the WSJ is parsing their options packages, that gap has a significant impact on their lives.

A version of this post appeared in the June 1st edition of The Broadsheet, Fortune's newsletter about the world's most powerful women. Subscribe here.

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